Kim Jong Il biographers appear to be conflicted about the young man’s whereabouts in the year 1960. Was the nineteen-year-old future leader traveling around the German Democratic Republic, or was he getting things rolling at the university in Pyongyang which still bears his father’s name? Or perhaps both? His official biography, in any case, has him firmly at Kim Il Sung University.
I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a new clue, unearthed on my last day of work in the Berlin archives earlier this month. It’s included in a letter from Kim Il Song to East German leader Otto Grotewohl, dated 24. February 1960, in which Kim is describing some specifics of a North Korean delegation which had been invited to an East German “Frühjahrmesse [Spring Festival]” in the city of Leipzig.
Kim’s correspondence with Grotewohl is usually full of formulaic language of socialist brotherhood and gratitude and all that, but Kim seems focused here on the minutiae of the trip in a way that feels unusual to me. The North Koreans had waited a long time to respond to Grotewohl’s original invitation (which had been sent on 30. November 1959), and Kim’s letter seems to indicate that the North Koreans had changed their minds and finally decided to send a delegation, led by DPRK Ambassador to East Germany, Pak Il Song [who is called Park Ir Sen in the documents; I need to check his romanization, however].
What seems a little weird, though, is that as eager as the North Koreans had been (and they were crazy eager) to display their orphans and choirs and goods in places like Mecklenburg earlier in the decade as a way of shaking loose more aid from East Germany, this time, they didn’t want any public events. As Kim writes: “Ich bedaure jedoch, dass an dieser Messe die KVDR [DPRK] wegen einiger vorhandener Umstände nicht mit enim Ausstellung teilnehmen kann.” The North Koreans just couldn’t do an exhibition at the Leipzig festival.
Kim Jong Il is not mentioned in the document, but to me, I think this is a piece of evidence which is just slightly disquieting, showing as it does Kim Il Song’s personal involvement in directing (one might even say micromanaging) North Korean involvement in the Leipzig events in a way that I haven’t seen in other areas, including the extensive documentation I looked through in preparation for his 1955 state visit to East Germany (which is another very interesting story involving his canceled visit to Buchenwald concentration camp and snubbing of some North Korean orphans, but I’ll have to save that for another time).
Historians in some ways are like symphony orchestra conductors; we have to listen for balance and gaps, and time the silences. What this document doesn’t tell us is more important than it what it does, but it also indicates a line of query which might lead one, were one interested in laying out the most accurate possible biography of the man driving North Korea towards the precipice, to the Stasi archive in Berlin to fish out more surveillance files on the North Koreans in East Germany in 1960-61.
Along similar lines, I’m planning to revisit the akin chapter in the memoir Dienst des Diktators, where the author, a North Korean elite, describes his studying in East Germany from 1957-1961. I’m quite sure he never mentions having met Kim Jong Il in those years, but again, at this point the study should be about context and forming the right questions.
Here’s the citation for you bibliographers:
Kim Il Song to Otto Grotewohl, 24 February 1960, in Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massen-organisation der DDR [SAMPO] im Bundesarchiv, Berlin, DC 20 (Ministerrat der DDR), Archivakte 15520.
This is a document which, inshallah, will be scanned and in my mailbox when I get back to the States, courtesy the Selke Firm. And it’s in both Korean and German for you language fanatics, with Kim Il Song’s tremendous signature, but his embossed white letterhead probably won’t come through in the reproduction. But please rest assured that, while in 1946 the man was agitating for more pencils (no kidding), the stock of his paper, by 1960, was amply thick.